Israel Police Must Halt Their Witch Hunt Against Provocative Artist

Persecution of Natali Cohen Vaxberg reveals a bad, McCarthyist spirit, which encourages attempts to silence those at all critical of the authorities.

Natali Cohen Vaxberg in court, November 2014.
Ofer Vaknin

The Israel Police, careening from embarrassing scandal to embarrassing scandal, finally figured out what’s undermining Israel’s social order: Playwright and video artist Natali Cohen Vaxberg, whose claim to fame is a video of herself defecating on the flags of 40 nations, including that of Israel.

Cohen Vaxberg, who makes provocative art criticizing national and patriotic values, has been questioned by the police no fewer than five times on suspicion of defacing religious and state symbols and hurting the public’s feelings. During the latest round of questioning, police took an interest in her YouTube channel and Facebook page and asked who was running them.

The harassment campaign against Cohen Vaxberg began in November 2014, after she was arrested in connection with the video. She was held overnight at the Abu Kabir detention facility and, after being brought before a judge, committed to house arrest for two days. Her cell phone and her computer were confiscated for three months and she was forbidden to use the Internet for 30 days.

Though never indicted, Cohen Vaxberg has twice been called in for police questioning since her house arrest and police have twice arrived at her home without notice to take her in for questioning.

Beyond the disproportionate attention that the Israel Police are giving Cohen Vaxberg, her testimony highlights the rather surreal nature of the interrogations. “In the most recent questioning, they asked me about a picture of myself with a teddy bear wrapped in an Israeli flag that looks like I am about to defecate on it. They asked what the message of the picture was. I said it seemed clear to me and I didn’t intend to explain. They asked whether I remembered when I posted the picture, and I said I didn’t remember and that they should ask the bear. Even the policeman couldn’t help laughing.” 

If this weren’t the state’s central law enforcement arm, and if this weren’t an outrageous waste of public money, the police’s conduct in the Cohen Vaxberg affair would make for excellent satire.

But the Israel Police’s persecution of Cohen Vaxberg is no joke. It reveals a bad, McCarthyist spirit, which encourages attempts to silence those at all critical of the authorities – even if it’s legitimate artistic criticism, which is not only permissible but also necessary in a democratic society. The Israel Police must immediately halt its foolish witch hunt against Cohen Vaxberg and focus on its crucial role in a democratic state.